What do Saul Alinsky, Students for a Democratic Society, HUD, and the Housing and Community Development Department of Fairfax County, Virginia, have in common?
Over his five-decade career, Conrad has been an organizer, a housing developer, a special assistant at HUD, the CEO of a national research and policy organization, and an active participant in the development of affordable housing in his home community. In 2010, Conrad turned the reins of the National Housing Conference over to Maureen Friar. In retirement Conrad remains as busy as ever, if not more so, working to end homelessness in Fairfax County and serving on advisory boards to the Virginia governor, Housing Virginia, and DC’s Community Preservation Development Corporation. We spoke with Conrad in February 2011.
Shelterforce: So how did you fall into the clutches of the affordable housing world?
Conrad Egan: Fell into the clutches, that’s a nice way to put it. I’ll start with elementary beginnings. I was born and bred near Akron, Ohio, in 1942. I lived in Cuyahoga Falls, which is one of those Mayberry-type suburbs just north of Akron, when Akron, along with the automobile industry, was booming.
I went to high school in Akron at St. Vincent High School and my one claim to fame is that the school is also Lebron James’s alma mater! So he and I are both graduates of the Fighting Irish of St. Vincent’s.
Well, I think you both get to bask in each other’s glory.
Well, thank you. And in keeping with modern times, St. Vincent, which was a coed high school, merged some time ago with an all-female high school called Mercy, so it’s St. Vincent Mercy now. That was a smart move on their part. It broadened their client base.
Anyway, so I grew up in this sort of supportive, hometown-y kind of atmosphere. The 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case, Cuyahoga Falls v. Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (see The Fight Over Low-Income Housing, SF #131), still embarrasses me because my then-leaders in Cuyahoga Falls used various devious devices to try to prevent a low-income housing tax credit development from being built in my hometown. So that’s one of Cuyahoga Falls’s ignominious claims to fame.
In ’59, my parents and I moved to Detroit and I went to the University of Detroit, and then to Ann Arbor, University of Michigan School of Social Work, and chose as my specialty community organizing. I was there with people like Tom Hayden and Barry Bluestone, founders of Students for a Democratic Society. In that context I began to form my views about developing communities.
My wife and I lived in Ann Arbor for my first year there. Then we moved into Detroit just outside of the CBD in a neighborhood called Corktown, and I commuted to school. Around then, I came across a book called Crisis in Black and White, by Charles Silverman. You may recall, there’s a chapter in there about some guy called Saul Alinsky.
I was fascinated with this person, and my wife and I hopped in our car and drove out to Chicago — we had contacted him beforehand — to his office. I don’t know if you ever met Saul personally.
Sort of grumpy, garrulous, rumpled, very direct, salty kind of person.
Exactly how I imagined him.
Right, with the fedora and the rumpled raincoat. He looked like a flasher, frankly, and he said, “Well, why are you here? Get yourself back to Detroit and hook up with this West Central Organization thing,” which I did. He would come in about once a month, and we would sit down with him and talk tactics and strategy and what was going on.
As you know, one of his principles is that people are organized on the basis of their self-interest, and one of the self-interests of the people I was working with in that neighborhood was affordable housing. So I sort of got, to use your word, clutched by that and worked with some neighborhood organizations to develop housing near Wayne State University.
What was Detroit like in ’65?
Well, it was very different from what it is now. It was still thriving. The neighborhood where I worked was very old, a good, strong, solid working-class, modest-income community. The Teamsters International headquarters was there, Tiger Stadium was there as well, as I recall, just west of the central business district, starting at the south of Corktown and then moving up toward West Grand Boulevard, which looped around, if you know anything about Detroit. The homes that were there then have sort of eroded into the ground, and there are these vast tracts of emptiness.
We literally experienced the ’67 riots. We could hear the guns — there would be a “pop,” and then there would be a 50-caliber machine gun response, “pop-pop-pop.” And the major rioting occurred a little north of us, up 12th Street, north of the boulevard, and then over on the west side, over on Cass and other streets like that. Our neighborhood supermarket got burned out. A lot of our neighbor institutions were destroyed. We were in our home and we heard all this stuff going on, but we didn’t feel threatened or endangered.
I was working at the time at University of Detroit Housing Law Project over on the immediate other side of the CBD at the University of Detroit Law School. And I walked into the office, and there was nobody there, and the streets were deserted. So I eventually called my boss, who was located close by in a development called Lafayette Park. This is an interesting development in Detroit that was designed I think by Mies van der Rohe, if I have my architects correct. It’s typical Mies style.
And so she said, “Hey, come on over to my apartment and we’ll get together.” It was a fascinating, amazing picture. If you looked out over this high-rise, and looked down on the folks who were there because they didn’t go to work because they were scared, they were down there swimming in the pool and having their margaritas and Bloody Marys. But as you looked out over the city, you could see the smoke plumes coming up.
What an amazing picture.
Later I did some work up in Lansing, and we got some tenant landlord legislation enacted.
I was recruited to help organize and apply for a Model Cities grant from the teeny-tiny city Highland Park, which, along with an adjacent city, Hamtramck, are completely surrounded by Detroit.